How to teach spelling well

Something I’ve been asked a few times in the last couple of weeks by teachers as well as my homeschool mums or at home helper mums is “how do you teach spelling well?” or “how do you teach dyslexics to spell?”

This is not something I can explain properly in anything less than a 12-month course! But I’ve outlined the main, key ingredients below.

Select words lists carefully.

Too often, I see students presented with words lists with a range of different patterns all lumped together. This is confusing for both students and teachers. How can anyone teach or learn a bunch of words with random patterns? Words lists should contain words from ONE pattern and ONE pattern only!

For example, you may be teaching the ‘ai’ making /ay/ phonic pattern (phonics), the ‘-ed’ past tense verb pattern (morphology), or the drop the final e when adding a vowel suffix rule (rule). When teaching spelling, lumping together all the ways in which you can make /ay/ is not helpful as the student is then confused about which pattern to use for which word. Teaching a_e, ‘ai’, ‘ay, ‘ae’, ‘a’, ‘ea’, and ‘ei’ words together may assist the child to learn to read these patterns, but it is a very confusing way to teach spelling.

How to teach spelling well

Reduce the number of words in your lists.

Something I have the most difficulty convincing teachers to do is to reduce the number of words in lists! The aim of teaching spelling well is for the student to gain automatic recall of all words in their list. This means that by the end of the week, they should be able to write each word quickly and without thinking about it. Any words that are not learned with automatic recall will likely be forgotten the following week or soon after.

I give my weakest students (usually those with standard spelling scores in the bottom 5th percentile) only 6-8 words per week. Yep, 6-8. That’s all. I give the middle cohort 10-15 and the top (kids with spelling scores more than 85th percentile) no more than 20. It feels counter-intuitive to reduce the number of words. After all, we’re trying to plough through the curriculum and jam as much as we can in. However, giving a student a list of say, 30 words is likely to result in shaky, short-term recall. Perhaps enough to do well on the Friday test, but not well enough to recall them next week (you’ve seen this happen, haven’t you??). For weak students, they may get a score of 5 out of 30, but because they were overloaded, they’ll forget them quickly, too. If a weak speller learns 8 words per week well, they learn 8 words per week, as opposed to say, 2-5 poorly memorised words per week. Reducing the number of words in a list actually speeds up the rate of learning!

Teach explicitly before launching into memorisation tasks.

Following the explicit teaching model – I do, we do, you do is essential for making sure students understand the English code (orthography) and can apply it proficiently. Before getting students to fill in worksheets, play games etc. it is essential to explain carefully and explicitly why, when and how a pattern is applied. This may include giving information about using the ‘ai’ pattern mainly in the middle of words, but not at the end. It may include showing how only regular, past tense verbs use the -ed suffix, but not common homophones like ‘find’ because it is not a past tense verb.

How to teach spelling

Link sound properties to letters rather than teaching visual memory.

For all students, but particularly for dyslexic students, visual memory is often taught as a key strategy in spelling. While having a good visual memory is certainly helpful, learning to read and spell does not occur by remembering the letter sequences of whole words by heart. In fact, when working with my dyslexic students, one of the first things I try to do is break them out of the habit of trying to remember what a word ‘looks like’. Why? Because they can’t. And when they over-rely on visual memory they produce spellings like ‘rian’ instead of ‘rain’. They have roughly recalled the letters in the word, but because they have not sequenced the sound properties and thought about the phonic patterns that represent them, the word is written out of order. This is then often mistaken for a visual problem, and even more emphasis is placed on remembering what the word ‘looks like’. Instead, students should be encouraged to use the order of sounds to guide their guesses and linking those sounds to the phonic patterns they know that represent them. This also gives them a strategy to work out unfamiliar words that they likely know how to say, but cannot spell.  Syllables are another sound property that can be used to guide guesses. The word ‘exited’ may come out as something like ‘exted’. Knowing that every syllable has a vowel sound, the child can be directed by asking ‘how many syllables does exited have? How many syllables does the word you’ve written have?’. Of course, we must explicitly teach phonic patterns and syllable conventions for the child to be able to make a correction first.

Allow plenty of time for practice and revision after explicit teaching.

Providing students a list of words on Monday and testing them on Friday is not sufficient for the development of good spelling skills. Practice needs to happen in class where expert guidance can be offered and misconceptions corrected quickly. For many students, and especially students that struggle, a lot of time needs to be allocated to consolidate the spelling of words. For dyslexic students, this takes significantly more exposure and repetition than for others. It’s important to build in a lot of practice time using engaging and creative ways to keep it interesting. Reducing the number of words in a list for students that struggle with spelling is one way to make sure they get plenty of repetition of a select group of words, rather than only a couple of exposures to each word in a long list. This increases the rate of learning and supports long-term retention. I recommend at least 30 minutes daily for explicit spelling teaching. Little and often is far more effective for long term memorisation than doing fewer, longer lessons.

Make sure practice is effective.

Practice is only effective when a high level of accuracy is maintained. The more times a struggling student writes a word incorrectly, the harder it will be for them to develop a sound memory for the word. Many teachers make the mistake of presenting a word list then having students play repetition games that involve some form of guessing how to spell it. Instead, students should be able to trace over words, copy words from sheets provided on their own desks etc until you can be sure the student knows the words well enough to accurately spell it without looking.

I so often hear people say ‘but isn’t telling/showing them how to do it cheating?’

No! It’s called teaching.

It is not cheating to look at words or to get support sounding them out when you are learning them! Only when you are being tested on them.

How to teach spelling

Find ways to make repetition fun and multisensory.

Repetition can get boring without a bit of creativity, but there are so many ways to make repetitious practice fun in spelling! Multisensory simply means bringing more than one sense into the lesson. This may be looking, listening, saying, touching, building up motor memory etc. Even an activity where the student writes the words while saying the letter sounds is multisensory. They hear the sounds, link them to the letter symbols they are seeing, and build a motor memory using the motion of their hand as they write. Just remember not to get carried away with the ‘fun’ and multisensory element, and always come back to making it an experience of the word. You can;

  • press plasticine into trays and have the students write (or copy!) their words using a skewer or even a pencil. This provides some resistance on the pencil and helps to reinforce the motor memory of the writing of the word. Have them say each sound as they do so. For example, ‘rain’ has 3 sounds; /r/, /ai/, /n/.
  • Have students use large or small imaginary pencils to air write the words. This gets their whole body involved – perfect for your ADHD kids who need movement to regulate their attention.
  • Have students use gymnastics ribbons to air spell their words.
  • Have students jump on a mini tramp while saying each letter of the word. Provide the list in front of them if needed for accurate repetition.
  • Have students throw a ball back and forth, each saying the next letter. This is great for flexing working memory skills too, as you have to remember where you’re up to in the word.
  • Have the students teach a mini-lesson on the pattern or words lists and make up their own multisensory activity. They love doing this!
  • Adapt or make board games that can be easily played using any word list. You can use Connect Four, Jenga, Battleships etc and have the student spell a word correctly before having their turn. A blank board game can also be easily made and re-used and students can refer to lists in their spelling books to play.

Remember, just be sure that the students have been explicitly taught the words well enough that you can be fairly certain they will ‘practise’ the spelling correctly!

Avoid activities which cause confusion.

Aside from being highly ineffective with most learners (and detrimental to students with dyslexia) Look, write, cover, check continues to enjoy a regular appearance in spelling teaching. I hope one day to live in a world where we simply don’t use it. Ever. Likewise, activities such as word searches, word unscrambles and guessing before the word is properly embedded cause confusion for all students, particularly those with dyslexia. So instead, borrow some of the accurate practice strategies outlined above, which are much more fun anyway.

Teach all the influences of the English code.

Teaching phonics explicitly, with emphasis and careful attention is absolutely critical for producing sound spellers. If a child learns a handful of letter sounds they can spell a wide range of words. If a child learns to recall 10 whole words, they know 10 words. In the early years, having phonemic awareness (or an awareness of individual sounds in speech) is essential for being able to map sounds onto the abstract, symbolic letters we use to represent them. Therefore, this skill must be explicitly taught. While phonics is a crucial foundation for spelling, higher levels of orthography such as morphology, etymology and spelling rules must also be understood to become a proficient speller. For example, when we take the base word ‘act’, and add the suffix ‘ion’, the pronunciation shifts so that we say action. Here the letters are representing units of meaning, rather than performing a ‘sound job’. The ‘ch’ in ‘school’ is not a crazy exception, rather it marks the word’s history. Being Greek in origin, we kept the ‘ch’ making /k/ pattern in this word, as we did with ‘echo’, ‘orchid’ and ‘architect’. Explicitly teaching children the logic in spelling helps them to understand orthography in a much deeper way, accelerating their reading and spelling progress.

Know your stuff.

Recently, in some phonics debates and reading wars debates, I have heard (so-called) experts say of us systematic, synthetic phonics advocates that we want to dumb the literacy curriculum down into its most basic elements and simplistic parts because it’s easy for us. Well, I would challenge those people to a linguistic dual any day!!

Having sound (let alone expert) knowledge of phonics alone is not easy to achieve. But in order to teach spelling well, you also have to know the spelling rules (those that actually work as well as those that are total rubbish), morphology (how prefixes, bases and suffixes fit together to build words) and their joining rules, and you also need to understand how etymology (or word origins) inform the spelling of words with silent letters and other seemingly irregular patterns. For anyone to call teaching these skills ‘basic’ or ‘simple’ shows just how little they know about English orthography and the complexities of it. Without possessing expert level knowledge, teachers cannot possibly pass it on to students who need it and are usually our most vulnerable. Students from indigenous, non-English speaking backgrounds, students with dyslexia, and economically disadvantaged students. And that is an unacceptable state of affairs indeed!

If you don’t know about all these aspects of English, I suppose you have some summer study to do!

Online Courses

Inspired Education Services has developed a number of online courses that bring you the most relevant, research-based teaching practices. Some of our courses include:

Synthetic Phonics Course. 

Vocabulary Course.

Phonics Word Lists.

Click the link above to visit the specific course page or click here to go to the online course page.

Inspired Spelling Resource Library – get free access

As a teacher myself, I understand the challenges of teaching spelling. There is so much to know if you’re going to explain it to students in a way that makes sense. That is why I have created Inspired Structured Literacy. 

Inspired Structured Literacy provides a clear, systematic program, lesson resources and training to enable them to confidently teach every child in their class using only the most evidence-based methods.

To kick things off, I’m offering you FREE access to 8 resources that allow you to learn as you teach! With teachers’ notes and clear explanations, you don’t need to do hours of lesson prep to work out how to use these fun spelling lesson ideas.

Inside you will find:

  • Phonemic awareness ladders
  • Comic strip activity
  • The magic ‘e’ go fish game
  • Magic ‘e’ worksheet
  • Consonant ‘r’ blends
  • Ch worksheets
  • Smart targets for English
  • Semantic Gradients

Get Access  to my spelling resource library

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